Eliza Hardy Jones on broken dreams, motherhood and new album Pickpocket

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Eliza Hardy Jones interview

Grief is inescapable. It is inevitable. It is debilitating and strange. Relentless and heavy. It can come in tidal waves or trickle in like an oncoming rain shower. Grief is also universal. It’s one of the things that make us human. Eliza Hardy Jones knows all about grief, perhaps a little too well. It’s a word you will hear a lot when talking about Pickpocket, the newest album by the Philly singer-songwriter, who went through hell and back to try to become a mother, and who found herself in the process. 

Grief is a pickpocket. Don’t see it coming ‘til it left you broke. Grief is a stranger that steals everything you knew about yourself.” That’s how Jones—multi-instrumentalist for Iron & Wine, Grace Potter, and currently The War on Drugs—opens Pickpocket on “This Is The Year,” a song that features fellow Drugs compatriots Dave Hartley on bass, Anthony LaMarca on guitar, and Charlie Hall on drums, as well as Jones’ confidant, producer/engineer Nick Krill on keys. 

“I wrote [‘This Is The Year’] at the bottom. I was recovering from the loss of a pregnancy that had come at the end of many years of fertility treatments,” says Jones. “I found myself at the end, lost in grief, and trying to find a way forward.” 

But how do you move forward from something that makes you question the value of your very existence? For Jones, if she wasn’t working on her quilts or going for a long run to shake loose the cobweb of thoughts in her head, she was writing songs. 

Written mostly at home in Philadelphia save for a brief writing retreat of solitude in the hills of Lynchburg, Virigina, the songs on Pickpocket outline years of personal struggle and existential crisis, during which Jones was weighed down by an all-consuming “slow balloon” of grief that she says “made everything impossible” in the wake of her long struggle to have a baby. It’s a struggle that included endless and fruitless IVF treatments, an ectopic pregnancy, and a miscarriage, all of which left her grieving and questioning who she was and who she was meant to be. You can hear Jones working through her grief in real time on songs, like the heartbreaking “Ballad for the Barren,” the choral gospel-like “In My Room,” or the ethereal “Counterfeit.” 

However, that’s not to say the whole album is a downer. Pickpocket is a sonically lush collage of different thoughts and ideas, not unlike the quilts Jones herself sews by hand. “Rosie Lee” is a driving Americana groove about a famous quilter, and then there’s “I Know How It Ends,” a song about belonging to a cult. “It’s not all about ‘here’s this song about how I went to the doctor,’” explains Jones. “There are different pieces of it.” Elements of her musical inspiration from the likes of Nina Simone to Danish indie rock group Efterklang to Sharon Van Etten seep throughout the record’s warm and varied sound, a testament to the wide array of musical collaborators Jones worked with on the album. 

When I speak to Jones over Zoom in March, I’m greeted by a smiling, almost giddy face. I don’t know what I was expecting, but what I was welcomed to certainly wasn’t the face of someone who has been through the unspeakable to get to the point where she is now—that is, the mother of a beautiful, healthy baby boy. After listening to her explore the depths of her grief and question her ability to become a mother with such honesty throughout Pickpocket, I guess I was expecting more of a morose conversation. But that’s not Eliza Hardy Jones. Even when I last spoke with her at Johnny Brenda’s in Philly in December of 2022 when the War on Drugs were beginning their sort-of-annual “Drugcember to Remember” shows, Jones was all smiles, both on stage and off. You wouldn’t know that she was struggling behind closed doors. Today, however, Jones is nothing if not surprisingly candid about her experience—an experience most people might find impossible to revisit. Having reached the other side, Jones is finally ready to tell her story. 

[Edited for length and clarity]

Treble: How is parenthood treating you?

Eliza Hardy Jones: Great. Really, really great. It’s even better than I had hoped. I’m really enjoying it. The timing of it was so nice with this being a pretty mellow year in terms of the touring schedule. So I’ve been able to spend a lot of quality time with the little bud. My husband and I are just loving it. He’s so sweet. It’s the best.

Treble: How old is he now?

EHJ: 6 months. 

Treble: My wife and I just hit the 4 month mark with our first. 

EHJ: Congrats, that’s exciting!

Treble: It’s also part of the reason why Pickpocket has really resonated with me. While my wife and I didn’t go through what you did, we know people who have. Not to mention, having a baby is fucking hard! And what you’re writing about on this album is heavy stuff that not a lot people are willing to talk about. Why did you feel you need to put music to your story?

EHJ: When I started writing these songs, I didn’t have sense of “the world needs songs about fertility” or “the world needs songs about motherhood or broken dreams.” It was more just like, I’m going through this difficult thing so I’m going to write songs about it to help myself, to just kinda process everything. And there were moments where I thought I’m just going to write lyrics and when I release these songs, I’m going to rewrite the lyrics and I’ll just say something else. But when it came down to it, it just felt better to tell my story and be honest about it and to let it out. 

I think a lot of people who have had the experience that I had—going through fertility treatments and failed cycles and all the things that you go through—part of the heaviness of it is that it’s a secret. You don’t want to share it with people, both because you don’t necessarily want people’s opinions about what you think you should be doing but also because there’s just so much up and down. Keeping people updated on that would just be too hard. I think finally being able to let it out and just say it out loud is so healing. I’ve been getting stories from a lot of people individually being like ‘thank you so much for this, let me tell you my story.’ I think a lot of people are desperate to tell this story of what it’s like to lose a pregnancy or what it’s like to find out that you are incapable of having children on your own. That’s an experience that’s so human and so real in that specific sense but also in a broader sense. All of us experience the loss of a dream. All of us experience the loss of something that we love. All of us experience the breaking of who we are and how we understand ourselves. And so I feel like being able to tell my story is maybe helpful for other people to tell their story or just makes them feel like they’re allowed to tell their story. 

Treble: Were you nervous about opening up like this in song? 

EHJ: Yeah. Super nervous. I continue to be nervous about it [laughs]. I’m nervous about it because it’s very vulnerable. I also feel bad for the people who know me and love me who didn’t know that story. I’m worried they’re gonna feel bad for me. I’m worried it’s gonna hurt them, having to relive some of that. I feel so bad bringing this pain to the surface. I feel nervous that people will be like “this stinks” after I poured my heart out [laughs]. You’re so excited to bring something into the world and then you’re just like “oh God, are people going to rip me apart now?” 

Treble: How do you even begin to emerge to write a song about something as heavy as this? What was the first song that came out of this?

EHJ: The first song was “Ballad for the Barren.” It’s very open and real. I’ve been with my husband for 20 years, and we’ve been trying to have a baby since 2017, but that’s a whole life where we weren’t trying to have a baby. I think there was always so much pressure on us like “why aren’t you having a baby” or “you’re going to find your real purpose in motherhood.”  For a lot of my life, I was like why can’t my real purpose be art? Why can’t my real purpose be music? Why can’t my family just be me and my husband? Why is there all this pressure to be a mother? But at the same time, more and more it felt like something that I did want. I really wanted to be a mother. I wanted this experience, and I was worried about what would happen if I don’t get to do that. 

Treble: Did the dam break at that point after writing “Ballad for the Barren” or did these songs take shape over time?

EHJ: They just sort of tinkered along. I would write down an idea and walk away from it for months. On previous albums, I put together a collection of songs and went into the studio and captured that moment. But with this record it was slow tinkering—let me knock on the door of this sadness and peek in and then just shut the door on it for a little bit. Then send it to a friend to see what they can contribute. It came together slowly like that. 

There was one time I rented an Airbnb in Lynchburg, Virginia. Because of what we were going through, I needed a break from this world. I needed a break from my studio. I woke up, wrote til lunch, ate lunch, went on a run, wrote til dinner, and then I would watch a period drama every night [laughs]. 

I have those little songs that I wrote when I was in Virginia, and then I have those I wrote after I got back or after I had experienced a new demoralizing, undignified experience. It was always about processing for myself. It was always about a private moment and not necessarily intending for it to become an album. 

There was so much going on. Just surviving in this moment, not just for me but for so many people… sometimes just being alive is really really hard. 

Treble: So this was more like a therapy thing for you and writing for yourself? 

EHJ: I absolutely wrote them as a kind of therapy. They tell you “oh you should journal” but I’m not a journaler. There was like a moment for me where I was like “just write exactly what you feel and get it out and sing it.” And “This is the Year” came out. I sang the lyrics as just a scratch vocal, laid down my guitar, and then sent it to my friend Dave [Hartley] to put some bass on it. Then we went into the studio to track some drums with Charlie Hall and Nick Krill. And all the time I was thinking eventually I’ll do a real vocal take, I’ll be able to do a good job of singing this. But I just couldn’t do it. I would open up a session, put up a microphone and be like I just can’t sing these lyrics again, it’s too heartbreaking. And you know, I grew attached from the vocal delivery. It’s far from a perfect delivery. I sang it for myself one day in an afternoon. I just laid down the guitars, laid down the vocal, and my wonderful talented friends made it sound amazing by putting awesome stuff around it. 

Treble: I think that’s what’s so endearing about it, and I love the idea of having that first feeling be THE take. 

EHJ: Yeah. I would send mixes to Nick along the way and be like “am I way off track here? Have I gone crazy?” And I remember sending this one to him and him just being like “this vocal is great, you do not need to redo this.” And I was like okay I don’t wanna redo it [laughs].

Treble: You can drive yourself crazy second guessing, so it’s good to have someone like that to say “no, keep it.”

EHJ: I definitely would not have been able to make this record on my own, without the contributions of my friends all over sending in tracks and without Nick. He was my first sounding board. It was so helpful to have his expert ears to help me pull it all together. By the time I wrote “This Is The Year” I knew that I had a collection that I thought would be an album. I thought I would rewrite the lyrics, like maybe it’s too much. Maybe I went too far with these songs.

Treble: Why’s that? 

EHJ: I think because it’s so personal. I played it for my husband and he just cried. It’s been his experience too. Obviously, as the person who has the uterus between us, the process was so hard for me physically and emotionally, but it was also so hard for him to go through all of that. And I feel like hearing me lay it all out was such a tender moment. Then I was like “is it okay with YOU that I say all this stuff out loud? This is your story to tell too.” And he was like “yeah you gotta do it, you gotta say it.”

Treble: I love that you put that song first, because it does kinda knock you back a little bit. And you’re talking about grief, and grief is very universal. It sets the tone for the rest of the album. 

EHJ: Yeah, the whole album is about living through grief. And it’s not just about how we were having a hard time with fertility, There’s police violence, there’s genocide, there’s war, and there’s like incoming fascism. There was so much going on. Just surviving in this moment, not just for me but for so many people… sometimes just being alive is really really hard. 

Treble: But I like the fact that you at least titled it “this is the year.” There’s a bit of hope in there. 

EHJ: The lyric is “this was the year” but the title is “this is the year” intentionally. I’m talking about how I’m getting through this moment in time. I am getting through this, I am getting over this, and moving forward. 

Treble: It’s super brave talking about your experience. I’m just amazed how you can talk/sing about this freely. It’s super admirable. Talking about this is hard, and life is hard like you said. Bringing this album into this world is going to help a lot of people. 

EHJ: I hope so. I feel like it would’ve helped me at the time. Also, I can talk freely about it now because I’m at the other end of it, you know? Because I’m not just existing within the sort of slow balloon that grief is. When I was in that place, it just made everything so impossible, and I felt like I couldn’t talk to people about it. Now being on the other side of it, I have some perspective, and I have enough joy to be able to share my experience. But it is still hard. And you know, it’s a really difficult thing to talk about, especially now politically. 

My personal story was that I was incapable of having children on my own. I did many years of IVF and failed at that. I had a lot of trouble, had a miscarriage, had an ectopic pregnancy, and eventually, I was able to have a baby because I was offered a donor embryo from some friends. I have the ultimate in modern family making experiences. But if I lived in Alabama, my story is now illegal. This album is coming out at a time when these gifts that were given to me to try to give me an avenue to motherhood are not available to some people now. And I feel myself in these people’s experiences. To have that taken away would’ve broken me. I feel so lucky that not only did it eventually work for us, but also we had these beautiful friends who were able to offer us an embryo and now we have a wonderful, healthy beautiful son. But all of that took a lot to come together and I know how lucky I am, and I wish the best for anybody who’s going through that. 

Treble: Before you go, I wanted to ask: You have some dates coming up later this Summer with the War on Drugs, The National, and Lucius. What’s the hardest part about being a mom on tour? Are you bringing the baby with you?

EHJ: Nope. The baby’s coming to Mexico [for the War on Drugs shows with My Morning Jacket]. That will be his first show, although while I was pregnant, the baby went to a lot of War on Drug shows.

Treble: And he is already cooler than I will ever be.

[Laughs] It was so fun being pregnant on tour. We’d be on stage and Adam [Granduciel] would hit this great guitar chord and my whole belly… he would just freak out and start kicking and dancing and I’d be like “woah!” [laughs] it was like my own little private moment on stage in front of all the people at the gig. It was very fun. 

I think the plan is that when we’re in places that we will be settled for a few days, like in Mexico where we’ll be in the same spot for four days, then my husband and baby will get to come and hang out with everybody. But when we’re in Europe flying around, it’s not built for babies. Doing the Australia tour last year, my son was three months old and I cried a lot at the airport, but then I got on the road and I felt so full. You can’t have everything all the time all at once, but you can have everything. I get to have the experience of being a mother and get to spend so much time with my son when I’m off the road, but then I also get to keep being who I am. I get to keep making music and keep going on tour and keep playing these incredible shows with my wonderful friends. I get to keep being a whole person. I don’t have to just be a mother now that I’m a mother. I get to keep being all of who I am. 

Pickpocket is out now via River Baby Records.

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